Maybe There’s no Connection Between Supermassive Black Holes and Their Host Galaxies?

For decades, astrophysicists have puzzled over the relationship between Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs) and their respective galaxies. Since the 1970s, it has been understood the majority of massive galaxies have an SMBH at their center, and that these are surrounded by rotating tori of gas and dust. The presence of these black holes and tori are what cause massive galaxies to have an Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN).

However, a recent study conducted by an international team of researchers revealed a startling conclusion when studying this relationship. Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to observe an active galaxy with a strong ionized gas outflow from the galactic center, the team obtained results that could indicate that there is no relationship between a an SMBH and its host galaxy.

The study, titled “No sign of strong molecular gas outflow in an infrared-bright dust-obscured galaxy with strong ionized-gas outflow“, recently appeared in the Astrophysical Journal. The study was led by Yoshiki Toba of the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taiwan and included members from Ehime University, Kogakuin University, and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, The Graduate University for Advanced Studies (SOKENDAI), and Johns Hopkins University.

Images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) (left), and mid-infrared image from WISE (right), respectively. Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey/NASA/JPLCaltech

The question of how SMBHs have affected galactic evolution remains one of the greatest unresolved questions in modern astronomy. Among astrophysicists, it is something of a foregone conclusion that SMBHs have a significant impact on the formation and evolution of galaxies. According to this accepted notion, SMBHs significantly influence the molecular gas in galaxies, which has a profound effect on star formation.

Basically, this theory holds that larger galaxies accumulate more gas, thus resulting in more stars and a more massive central black hole. At the same time, there is a feedback mechanism, where growing black holes accrete more matter on themselves. This results in them sending out a tremendous amount of energy in the form of radiation and particle jets, which is believed to curtail star formation in their vicinity.

However, when observing an infrared (IR)-bright dust-obscured galaxy (DOG) – WISE1029+0501 – Yoshiki and his colleagues obtained results that contradicted this notion. After conducting a detailed analysis using ALMA, the team found that there were no signs of significant molecular gas outflow coming from WISE1029+0501. They also found that star-forming activity in the galaxy was neither more intense or suppressed.

This indicates that a strong ionized gas outflow coming from the SMBH in WISE1029+0501 did not significantly affect the surrounding molecular gas or star formation. As Dr. Yoshiki Toba explained, this result:

“[H]as made the co-evolution of galaxies and supermassive black holes more puzzling. The next step is looking into more data of this kind of galaxies. That is crucial for understanding the full picture of the formation and evolution of galaxies and supermassive black holes”.

Emission from Carbon Monoxide (Left) and Cold Dust (Right) in WISE1029 Observed by ALMA (image). Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Toba et al.

This not only flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but also in the face of recent studies that showed a tight correlation between the mass of central black holes and those of their host galaxies. This correlation suggests that supermassive black holes and their host galaxies evolved together over the course of the past 13.8 billion years and closely interacted as they grew.

In this respect, this latest study has only deepened the mystery of the relationship between SMBHs and their galaxies. As Tohru Nagao, a Professor at Ehime University and a co-author on the study, indicated:

“[W]e astronomers do not understand the real relation between the activity of supermassive black holes and star formation in galaxies. Therefore, many astronomers including us are eager to observe the real scene of the interaction between the nuclear outflow and the star-forming activities, for revealing the mystery of the co-evolution.”

The team selected WISE1029+0501 for their study because astronomers believe that DOGs harbor actively growing SMBHs in their nuclei. In particular, WISE1029+0501 is an extreme example of galaxies where outflowing gas is being ionized by the intense radiation from its SMBH. As such, researchers have been highly motivated to see what happens to this galaxy’s molecular gas.

Artist’s impression of the black hole wind at the center of a galaxy. Credit: ESA

The study was made possible thanks to ALMA’s sensitivity, which is excellent when it comes to investigating the properties of molecular gas and star-forming activity in galaxies. In fact, multiple studies have been conducted in recent years that have relied on ALMA to investigate the gas properties and SMBHs of distant galaxies.

And while the results of this study contradict widely-held theories about galactic evolution, Yoshiki and his colleagues are excited about what this study could reveal. In the end, it may be that radiation from a SMBH does not always affect the molecular gas and star formation of its host galaxy.

“[U]nderstanding such co-evolution is crucial for astronomy,” said Yoshiki. “By collecting statistical data of this kind of galaxies and continuing in more follow-up observations using ALMA, we hope to reveal the truth.”

Further Reading: ALMA Observatory, Astrophysical Journal

Outflows From Black Holes are Creating New Molecules Where There Should Only be Destruction

During the 1960s, scientists discovered a massive radio source (known as Sagittarius A*) at the center of the Milky Way, which was later revealed to be a Supermassive Black Holes (SMBH). Since then, they have learned that these SMBHs reside at the center of most massive galaxies. The presence of these black holes is also what allows the centers of these galaxies to have a higher than normal luminosity – aka. Active Galactic Nuclei (AGNs).

In the past few years, astronomers have also observed fast molecular outflows emanating from AGNs which left them puzzled. For one, it was a mystery how any particles could survive the heat and energy of a black hole’s outflow. But according to a new study produced by researchers from Northwestern University, these molecules were actually born within the winds themselves. This theory may help explain how stars form in extreme environments.

The study recently appeared in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society under the title “The origin of fast molecular outflows in quasars: molecule formation in AGN-driven galactic winds.” The study was conducted by Lindheimer post-doctoral fellow Alexander J Richings and assistant professor Claude-André Faucher-Giguère from Northwestern University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Exploration in Astrophysics (CIERA).

Artist’s impression of a black hole’s wind sweeping away galactic gas. Credit: ESA

For the sake of their study, Richings developed the first-ever computer code capable of modeling the detailed chemical processes in interstellar gas which are accelerated by a growing SMBH’s radiation. Meanwhile, Claude-André Faucher-Giguère contributed his expertise, having spent his career studying the formation and evolution of galaxies. As Richings explained in a Northwestern press release:

“When a black hole wind sweeps up gas from its host galaxy, the gas is heated to high temperatures, which destroy any existing molecules. By modeling the molecular chemistry in computer simulations of black hole winds, we found that this swept-up gas can subsequently cool and form new molecules.”

The existence of energetic outflows form SMBHs was first confirmed in 2015, when researchers used the ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory and data from the Japanese/US Suzaku satellite to observe the AGN of a galaxy known as IRAS F11119+3257. Such outflows, they determined, are responsible for draining galaxies of their interstellar gas, which has an arresting effect on the formation of new stars and can lead to “red and dead” elliptical galaxies.

This was followed-up in 2017 with observations that indicated that rapidly moving new stars formed in these outflows, something that astronomers previously thought to be impossible because of the extreme conditions present within them. By theorizing that these particles are actually the product of black hole winds, Richings and Faucher-Giguère have managed to address questions raised by these previous observations.

Artist's concept of Sagittarius A, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s concept of Sagittarius A, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL

Essentially, their theory helps explain predictions made in the past, which appeared contradictory at first glance. On the one hand, it upholds the prediction that black hole winds destroy molecules they collide with. However, it also predicts that new molecules are formed within these winds – including hydrogen, carbon monoxide and water – which can give birth to new stars. As Faucher-Giguère explained:

“This is the first time that the molecule formation process has been simulated in full detail, and in our view, it is a very compelling explanation for the observation that molecules are ubiquitous in supermassive black hole winds, which has been one of the major outstanding problems in the field.”

Richings and Faucher-Giguère look forward to the day when their theory can be confirmed by next-generation missions. They predict that new molecules formed by black hole outflows would be brighter in the infrared wavelength than pre-existing molecules. So when the James Webb Space Telescope takes to space in the Spring of 2019, it will be able to map these outflows in detail using its advance IR instruments.

One of the most exciting things about the current era of astronomy is the way new discoveries are shedding light on decades-old mysteries. But when these discoveries lead to theories that offer symmetry to what were once thought to be incongruous pieces of evidence, that’s when things get especially exciting. Basically, it lets us know that we are moving closer to a greater understanding of our Universe!

Further Reading: Northwestern University, MNRAS

Astronomers Find a Rogue Supermassive Black Hole, Kicked out by a Galactic Collision

When galaxies collide, all manner of chaos can ensue. Though the process takes millions of years, the merger of two galaxies can result in Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs, which reside at their centers) merging and becoming even larger. It can also result in stars being kicked out of their galaxies, sending them and even their systems of planets into space as “rogue stars“.

But according to a new study by an international team of astronomers, it appears that in some cases, SMBHs could  also be ejected from their galaxies after a merger occurs. Using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes, the team detected what could be a “renegade supermassive black hole” that is traveling away from its galaxy.

According to the team’s study – which appeared in the Astrophysical Journal under the title A Potential Recoiling Supermassive Black Hole, CXO J101527.2+625911 – the renegade black hole was detected at a distance of about 3.9 billion light years from Earth. It appears to have come from within an elliptical galaxy, and contains the equivalent of 160 million times the mass of our Sun.

Hubble data showing the two bright points near the middle of the galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/NRAO/D.-C.Kim/STScI

The team found this black hole while searching through thousands of galaxies for evidence of black holes that showed signs of being in motion. This consisted of sifting through data obtained by the Chandra X-ray telescope for bright X-ray sources – a common feature of rapidly-growing SMBHs – that were observed as part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS).

They then looked at Hubble data of all these X-ray bright galaxies to see if it would reveal two bright peaks at the center of any. These bright peaks would be a telltale indication that a pair of supermassive black holes were present, or that a recoiling black hole was moving away from the center of the galaxy. Last, the astronomers examined the SDSS spectral data, which shows how the amount of optical light varies with wavelength.

From all of this, the researchers invariably found what they considered to be a good candidate for a renegade black hole. With the help data from the SDSS and the Keck telescope in Hawaii, they determined that this candidate was located near, but visibly offset from, the center of its galaxy. They also noted that it had a velocity that was different from the galaxy – properties which suggested that it was moving on its own.

The image below, which was generated from Hubble data, shows the two bright points near the center of the galaxy. Whereas the one on the left was located within the center, the one on the right (the renegade SMBH) was located about 3,000 light years away from the center. Between the X-ray and optical data, all indications pointed towards it being a black hole that was kicked from its galaxy.

The bright X-ray source detected with Chandra (left), and data obtained from the SDSS and the Keck telescope in Hawaii. Credit: NASA/CXC/NRAO/D.-C.Kim/STScI

In terms of what could have caused this, the team ventured that the back hole might have “recoiled” when two smaller SMBHs collided and merged. This collision would have generated gravitational waves that could have then pushed the black hole out of the galaxy’s center. They further ventured that the black hole may have formed and been set in motion by the collision of two smaller black holes.

Another possible explanation is that two SMBHs are located in the center of this galaxy, but one of them is not producing detectable radiation – which would mean that it is growing too slowly. However, the researchers favor the explanation that what they observed was a renegade black hole, as it seems to be more consistent with the evidence. For example, their study showed signs that the host galaxy was experiencing some disturbance in its outer regions.

This is a possible indication that the merger between the two galaxies occurred in the relatively recent past. Since SMBH mergers are thought to occur when their host galaxies merge, this reservation favors the renegade black hole theory. In addition, the data showed that in this galaxy, stars were forming at a high rate. This agrees with computer simulations that predict that merging galaxies experience an enhanced rate of star formation.

But of course, additional researches is needed before any conclusions can be reached. In the meantime, the findings are likely to be of particular interest to astronomers. Not only does this study involve a truly rare phenomenon – a SMBH that is in motion, rather than resting at the center of a galaxy – but the unique properties involved could help us to learn more about these rare and enigmatic features.

Detection of an unusually bright X-Ray flare from Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/Stanford/I. Zhuravleva et al.

For one, the study of SMBHs could reveal more about the rate and direction of spin of these enigmatic objects before they merge. From this, astronomers would be able to better predict when and where SMBHs are about to merge. Studying the speed of recoiling black holes could also reveal additional information about gravitational waves, which could unlock additional secrets about the nature of space time.

And above all, witnessing a renegade black hole is an opportunity to see some pretty amazing forces at work. Assuming the observations are correct, there will no doubt be follow-up surveys designed to see where the SMBH is traveling and what effect it is having on the surrounding cosmic environment.

Ever since the 1970s, scientists have been of the opinion that most galaxies have SMBHs at their center. In the years and decades that followed, research confirmed the presence of black holes not only at the center of our galaxy – Sagittarius A* – but at the center of all almost all known massive galaxies. Ranging in mass from the hundreds of thousands to billions of Solar masses, these objects exert a powerful influence on their respective galaxies.

Be sure to enjoy this video, courtesy of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory:

Further Reading: Chandra X-ray Observatory, arXiv

What Are Fast Radio Bursts?

298 What Are Fast Radio Bursts?


You might think you’re reading an educational website, where I explain fascinating concepts in space and astronomy, but that’s not really what’s going on here.

What’s actually happening is that you’re tagging along as I learn more and more about new and cool things happening in the Universe. I dig into them like a badger hiding a cow carcass, and we all get to enjoy the cache of knowledge I uncover.

Okay, that analogy got a little weird. Anyway, my point is. Squirrel!

Fast radio bursts are the new cosmic whatzits confusing and baffling astronomers, and now we get to take a front seat and watch them move through all stages of process of discovery.

Stage 1: A strange new anomaly is discovered that doesn’t fit any current model of the cosmos. For example, strange Boyajian’s Star. You know, that star that probably doesn’t have an alien megastructure orbiting around it, but astronomers can’t rule that out just yet?

Stage 2: Astronomers struggle to find other examples of this thing. They pitch ideas for new missions and scientific instruments. No idea is too crazy, until it’s proven to be too crazy. Examples include dark matter, dark energy, and that idea that we’re living in a

Stage 3: Astronomers develop a model for the thing, find evidence that matches their predictions, and vast majority of the astronomical community comes to a consensus on what this thing is. Like quasars and gamma ray bursts. YouTuber’s make their videos. Textbooks are updated. Balance is restored.

Today we’re going to talk about Fast Radio Bursts. They just moved from Stage 1 to Stage 2. Let’s dig in.

Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, or “Furbys” were first detected in 2007 by the astronomer Duncan Lorimer from West Virginia University.

He was looking through an archive of pulsar observations. Pulsars, of course, are newly formed neutron stars, the remnants left over from supernova explosions. They spin rapidly, blasting out twin beams of radiation. Some can spin hundreds of times a second, so precisely you could set your watch to them.

Parkes radio dish
Lorimer’s archive of pulsar observations was captured at the Parkes radio dish in Australia. Credit: CSIRO (CC BY 3.0)

In this data, Lorimer made a “that’s funny” observation, when he noticed one blast of radio waves that squealed for 5 milliseconds and then it was gone. It didn’t match any other observation or prediction of what should be out there, so astronomers set out to find more of them.

Over the last 10 years, astronomers have found about 25 more examples of Fast Radio Bursts. Each one only lasts a few milliseconds, and then fades away forever. A one time event that can appear anywhere in the sky and only last for a couple milliseconds and never repeats is not an astronomer’s favorite target of study.

Actually, one FRB has been found to repeat, maybe.

The question, of course, is “what are they?”. And the answer, right now is, “astronomers have no idea.”

In fact, until very recently, astronomers weren’t ever certain they were coming from space at all. We’re surrounded by radio signals all the time, so a terrestrial source of fast radio bursts seems totally logical.

About a week ago, astronomers from Australia announced that FRBs are definitely coming from outside the Earth. They used the Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope (or MOST) in Canberra to gather data on a large patch of sky.

Then they sifted through 1,000 terabytes of data and found just 3 fast radio bursts. Three.

Since MOST is farsighted and can’t perceive any radio signals closer than 10,000 km away, the signals had to be coming outside planet Earth. They were “extraterrestrial” in origin.

Right now, fast radio bursts are infuriating to astronomers. They don’t seem to match up with any other events we can see. They’re not the afterglow of a supernova, or tied in some way to gamma ray bursts.

In order to really figure out what’s going on, astronomers need new tools, and there’s a perfect instrument coming. Astronomers are building a new telescope called the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (or CHIME), which is under construction near the town of Penticton in my own British Columbia.

CHIME under construction in Penticton, British Columbia. Credit: Mateus A. Fandiño (CC BY-SA 4.0)

It looks like a bunch of snowboard halfpipes, and its job will be to search for hydrogen emission from distant galaxies. It’ll help us understand how the Universe was expanding between 7 and 11 billion years ago, and create a 3-dimensional map of the early cosmos.

In addition to this, it’s going to be able to detect hundreds of fast radio bursts, maybe even a dozen a day, finally giving astronomers vast pools of signals to study.

What are they? Astronomers have no idea. Seriously, if you’ve got a good suggestion, they’d be glad to hear it.

In these kinds of situations, astronomers generally assume they’re caused by exploding stars in some way. Young stars or old stars, or maybe stars colliding. But so far, none of the theoretical models match the observations.

This artist’s conception illustrates one of the most primitive supermassive black holes known (central black dot) at the core of a young, star-rich galaxy. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Another idea is black holes, of course. Specifically, supermassive black holes at the hearts of distant galaxies. From time to time, a random star, planet, or blob of gas falls into the black hole. This matter piles upon the black hole’s event horizon, heats up, screams for a moment, and disappears without a trace. Not a full on quasar that shines for thousands of years, but a quick snack.

The next idea comes with the only repeating fast radio burst that’s ever been found. Astronomers looked through the data archive of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and found a signal that had repeated at least 10 times in a year, sometimes less than a minute apart.

Since the quick blast of radiation is repeating, this rules out a one-time collision between exotic objects like neutron stars. Instead, there could be a new class of magnetars (which are already a new class of neutron stars), that can release these occasional shrieks of radio.

An artist’s impression of a magnetar. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Or maybe this repeating object is totally different from the single events that have been discovered so far.

Here’s my favorite idea. And honestly, the one that’s the least realistic. What I’m about to say is almost certainly not what’s going on. And yet, it can’t be ruled out, and that’s good enough for my fertile imagination.

Avi Loeb and Manasvi Lingam at Harvard University said the following about FRBs:

“Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at distances, and we haven’t identified a possible natural source with any confidence. An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking.”

Artificial origin. So. Aliens. Nice.

Loeb and Lingam calculated how difficult it would be to send a signal that strong, that far across the Universe. They found that you’d need to build a solar array with twice the surface area of Earth to power the radio wave transmitter.

And what would you do with a transmission of radio or microwaves that strong? You’d use it to power a spacecraft, of course. What we’re seeing here on Earth is just the momentary flash as a propulsion beam sweeps past the Solar System like a lighthouse.

But in reality, this huge solar array would be firing out a constant beam of radiation that would propel a massive starship to tremendous speeds. Like the Breakthrough Starshot spacecraft, but for million tonne spaceships.

Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings (SAIC)

In other words, we could be witnessing alien transportation systems, pushing spacecraft with beams of energy to other worlds.

And I know that’s probably not what’s happening. It’s not aliens. It’s never aliens. But in my mind, that’s what I’m imagining.

So, kick back and enjoy the ride. Join us as we watch astronomers struggle to understand what fast radio bursts are. As they invalidate theories, and slowly unlock one of the most thrilling mysteries in modern astronomy. And as soon as they figure it out, I’ll let you know all about it.

What do you think? Which explanation for fast radio bursts seems the most logical to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts and wild speculation in the comments.

Will Our Black Hole Eat the Milky Way?

Want to hear something cool? There’s a black hole at the center of the Milky Way. And not just any black hole, it’s a supermassive black hole with more than 4.1 million times the mass of the Sun.

It’s right over there, in the direction of the Sagittarius constellation. Located just 26,000 light-years away. And as we speak, it’s in the process of tearing apart entire stars and star systems, occasionally consuming them, adding to its mass like a voracious shark.

Sagittarius A*. Image credit: Chandra
Sagittarius A*. Image credit: Chandra

Wait, that doesn’t sound cool, that sort of sounds a little scary. Right?

Don’t worry, you have absolutely nothing to worry about, unless you plan to live for quadrillions of years, which I do, thanks to my future robot body. I’m ready for my singularity, Dr. Kurzweil.

Is the supermassive black hole going to consume the Milky Way? If not, why not? If so, why so?

The discovery of a supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way, and really almost all galaxies, is one of my favorite discoveries in the field of astronomy. It’s one of those insights that simultaneously answered some questions, and opened up even more.

Back in the 1970s, the astronomers Bruce Balick and Robert Brown realized that there was an intense source of radio emissions coming from the very center of the Milky Way, in the constellation Sagittarius.

They designated it Sgr A*. The asterisk stands for exciting. You think I’m joking, but I’m not. For once, I’m not joking.

An illustration of Saggitarius A*. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

In 2002, astronomers observed that there were stars zipping past this object, like comets on elliptical paths going around the Sun. Imagine the mass of our Sun, and the tremendous power it would take to wrench a star like that around.

The only objects with that much density and gravity are black holes, but in this case, a black hole with millions of times the mass of our own Sun: a supermassive black hole.

With the discovery of the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, astronomers found evidence that there are black holes at the heart of every galaxy.

At the same time, the discovery of supermassive black holes helped answer one of the big questions in astronomy: what are quasars? We did a whole article on them, but they’re intensely bright objects, generating enough light they can be seen billions of light-years away. Giving off more energy than the rest of their own galaxy combined.

The quasar SDSS J1106+1939 has the most energetic outflows ever seen, at least five times more powerful than any that have been observed to date. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

It turns out that quasars and supermassive black holes are the same thing. Quasars are just black holes in the process of actively feeding; gobbling up so much material it piles up in an accretion disk around it. Once again, these do sound terrifying. But are we in any danger?

In the short term, no. The black hole at the center of the Milky Way is 26,000 light-years away. Even if it turned into a quasar and started eating stars, you wouldn’t even be able to notice it from this distance.

A black hole is just a concentration of mass in a very small region, which things orbit around. To give you an example, you could replace the Sun with a black hole with the exact same mass, and nothing would change. I mean, we’d all freeze because there wasn’t a Sun in the sky anymore, but the Earth would continue to orbit this black hole in exactly the same orbit, for billions of years.

Same goes with the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. It’s not pulling material in like a vacuum cleaner, it serves as a gravitational anchor for a group of stars to orbit around, for billions of years.

In order for a black hole to actually consume a star, it needs to make a direct hit. To get within the event horizon, which is only about 17 times bigger than the Sun. If a star gets close, without hitting, it’ll get torn apart, but still, it doesn’t happen very often.

A black hole, with an accretion disk, consuming a star. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

The problem happens when these stars interact with one another through their own gravity, and mess with each other’s orbits. A star that would have been orbiting happily for billions of years might get deflected into a collision course with the black hole. But this happens very rarely.

Over the short term, that supermassive black hole is totally harmless. Especially from out here in the galactic suburbs.

But there are a few situations that might cause some problems over vast periods of time.

The first panic will happen when the Milky Way collides with Andromeda in about 4 billion years – let’s call this mess Milkdromeda. Suddenly, you’ll have two whole clouds of stars interacting in all kinds of ways, like an unstable blended family. Stars that would have been safe will careen past other stars and be deflected down into the maw of either of the two supermassive black holes on hand. Andromeda’s black hole could be 100 million times the mass of the Sun, so it’s a bigger target for stars with a death wish.

View of Milkdromeda from Earth "shortly" after the merger, around 3.85-3.9 billion years from now Credit: NASA, ESA, Z. Levay and R. van der Marel (STScI), T. Hallas, and A. Mellinger
View of Milkdromeda from Earth “shortly” after the merger, around 3.85-3.9 billion years from now Credit: NASA, ESA, Z. Levay and R. van der Marel (STScI), T. Hallas, and A. Mellinger

Over the coming billions, trillions and quadrillions of years, more and more galaxies will collide with Milkdromeda, bringing new supermassive black holes and more stars to the chaos.

So many opportunities for mayhem.

Of course, the Sun will die in about 5 billion years, so this future won’t be our problem. Well, fine, with my eternal robot body, it might still be my problem.

After our neighborhood is completely out of galaxies to consume, then there will just be countless eons of time for stars to interact for orbit after orbit. Some will get flung out of Milkdromeda, some will be hurled down into the black hole.

And others will be safe, assuming they can avoid this fate over the Googol years it’ll take for the supermassive black hole to finally evaporate. That’s a 1 followed by 100 zeroes years. That’s a really really long time, so now I don’t like those odds.

For our purposes, the black hole at the heart of the Milky Way is completely and totally safe. In the lifetime of the Sun, it won’t interact with us in any way, or consume more than a handful of stars.

But over the vast eons, it could be a different story. I hope we can be around to find out the answer.

How Fast Can Stars Spin?

Everything in the Universe is spinning. Spinning planets and their spinning moons orbit around spinning stars, which orbit spinning galaxies. It’s spinning all the way down.

Consider that fiery ball in the sky, the Sun. Like all stars, our Sun rotates on its axis. You can’t tell because staring at the Sun long enough will permanently damage your eyeballs. Instead you can use a special purpose solar telescope to observe sunspots and other features on the surface of the Sun. And if you track their movements, you’ll see that the Sun’s equator takes 24.47 days to turn once on its axis. Unlike its slower poles which take 26.24 days to turn.

The Sun isn’t a solid ball of rock, it’s a sphere of hot plasma, so the different regions can complete their rotation at different rates. But it rotates so slowly that it’s an almost perfect sphere.

If you were standing on the surface of the Sun, which you can’t, of course, you would be whipping around at 7,000 km/h. That sounds fast, but just you wait.

How does that compare to other stars, and what’s the fastest that a star can spin?

Achenar is located at the lower right of the constellation Eridanus.
Achenar rotates much faster than our Sun. It is located at the lower right of the constellation Eridanus.

A much faster spinning star is Achenar, the tenth brightest star in the sky, located 139 light-years away in the constellation of Eridanus. It has about 7 times the mass of the Sun, but it spins once on its axis every 2 days. If you could see Achenar up close, it would look like a flattened ball. If you measured it from pole to pole, it would be 7.6 Suns across, but if you measured across the equator, it would be 11.6 Suns across.

If you were standing on the surface of Achenar, you’d be hurtling through space at 900,000 km/h.

The very fastest spinning star we know of is the 25 solar mass VFTS 102, located about 160,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud’s Tarantula Nebula – a factory for massive stars.

If you were standing on the surface of VFTS 102, you’d be moving at 2 million km/h.

In fact, VFTS 102 is spinning so quickly, it can just barely keep itself together. Any faster, and the outward centripetal force would overcome the gravity holding its guts in, and it would tear itself apart. Perhaps that’s why we don’t see any spinning faster; because they couldn’t handle the speed. It appears that this is the fastest that stars can spin.

This is an artist's concept of the fastest rotating star found to date. The massive, bright young star, called VFTS 102, rotates at a million miles per hour, or 100 times faster than our Sun does. Centrifugal forces from this dizzying spin rate have flattened the star into an oblate shape and spun off a disk of hot plasma, seen edge on in this view from a hypothetical planet. The star may have "spun up" by accreting material from a binary companion star. The rapidly evolving companion later exploded as a supernova. The whirling star lies 160,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way.  Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)
This is an artist’s concept of VFTS 102, the fastest rotating star found to date. Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

One other interesting note about VFTS 102 is that it’s also hurtling through space much faster than the stars around it. Astronomers think it was once in a binary system with a partner that detonated as a supernova, releasing it into space like a catapult.

Not only stars can spin. Dead stars can spin too, and they take this to a whole other level.

Neutron stars are what you get when a star with much more mass than the Sun detonates as a supernova. Suddenly you’ve got a stellar remnant with twice the mass of the Sun compressed down into a tiny ball about 20 km across. All that angular momentum of the star is retained, and so the neutron star spins at an enormous speed.

The fastest neutron star ever recorded spins around 700 times a second. We know it’s turning this quickly because it’s blasting out beams of radiation that sweep towards us like an insane lighthouse. This, of course, is a pulsar, and we did a whole episode on them.

A regular star would be torn apart, but neutron stars have such intense gravity, they can rotate this quickly. Over time, the radiation streaming from the neutron star strips away its angular momentum, and it slows down.

A black hole with an accretion disk. Credit: (NASA/Dana Berry/SkyWorks Digital)

Black holes can spin even faster than that. In fact, when a black hole is actively feeding from a binary companion, or a supermassive black hole is gobbling up stars, it can rotate at nearly the speed of light. The laws of physics prevent anything in the Universe spinning faster than the speed of light, and black holes go right up to the edge of the law without breaking it.

Astronomers recently found a supermassive black hole spinning up to 87% the maximum speed permitted by relativity.

If you were hoping there are antimatter lurking out there, hoarding all that precious future energy, I’m sorry to say, but astronomers have looked and they haven’t found it. Just like the socks in your dryer, we may never discover where it all went.

A Star Is About To Go 2.5% The Speed Of Light Past A Black Hole

Since it was first discovered in 1974, astronomers have been dying to get a better look at the Supermassive Black Hole (SBH) at the center of our galaxy. Known as Sagittarius A*, scientists have only been able to gauge the position and mass of this SBH by measuring the effect it has on the stars that orbit it. But so far, more detailed observations have eluded them, thanks in part to all the gas and dust that obscures it.

Luckily, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) recently began work with the GRAVITY interferometer, the latest component in their Very Large Telescope (VLT). Using this instrument, which combines near-infrared imaging, adaptive-optics, and vastly improved resolution and accuracy, they have managed to capture images of the stars orbiting Sagittarius A*. And what they have observed was quite fascinating.

One of the primary purposes of GRAVITY is to study the gravitational field around Sagittarius A* in order to make precise measurements of the stars that orbit it. In so doing, the GRAVITY team – which consists of astronomers from the ESO, the Max Planck Institute, and multiple European research institutes – will be able to test Einstein’s theory of General Relativity like never before.

The core of the Milky Way. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (SSC/Caltech)
Spitzer image of the core of the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (SSC/Caltech)

In what was the first observation conducted using the new instrument, the GRAVITY team used its powerful interferometric imaging capabilities to study S2, a faint star which orbits Sagittarius A* with a period of only 16 years. This test demonstrated the effectiveness of the GRAVITY instrument – which is 15 times more sensitive than the individual 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes the VLT currently relies on.

This was an historic accomplishment, as a clear view of the center of our galaxy is something that has eluded astronomers in the past. As GRAVITY’s lead scientist, Frank Eisenhauer – from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany – explained to Universe Today via email:

“First, the Galactic Center is hidden behind a huge amount of interstellar dust, and it is practically invisible at optical wavelengths. The stars are only observable in the infrared, so we first had to develop the necessary technology and instruments for that. Second, there are so many stars concentrated in the Galactic Center that a normal telescope is not sharp enough to resolve them. It was only in the late 1990′ and in the beginning of this century when we learned to sharpen the images with the help of speckle interferometry and adaptive optics to see the stars and observe their dance around the central black hole.”

But more than that, the observation of S2 was very well timed. In 2018, the star will be at the closest point in its orbit to the Sagittarius A*  – just 17 light-hours from it. As you can see from the video below, it is at this point that S2 will be moving much faster than at any other point in its orbit (the orbit of S2 is highlighted in red and the position of the central black hole is marked with a red cross).

When it makes its closest approach, S2 will accelerate to speeds of almost 30 million km per hour, which is 2.5% the speed of light. Another opportunity to view this star reach such high speeds will not come again for another 16 years – in 2034. And having shown just how sensitive the instrument is already, the GRAVITY team expects to be able make very precise measurements of the star’s position.

In fact, they anticipate that the level of accuracy will be comparable to that of measuring the positions of objects on the surface of the Moon, right down to the centimeter-scale. As such, they will be able to determine whether the motion of the star as it orbits the black hole are consistent with Einstein’s theories of general relativity.

“[I]t is not the speed itself to cause the general relativistic effects,” explained Eisenhauer, “but the strong gravitation around the black hole. But the very  high orbital speed is a direct consequence and measure of the gravitation, so we refer to it in the press release because the comparison with the speed of light and the ISS illustrates so nicely the extreme conditions.

Artist's impression of the influence gravity has on space time. Credit: space.com
Artist’s impression of the influence gravity has on space-time. Credit: space.com

As recent simulations of the expansion of galaxies in the Universe have shown, Einstein’s theories are still holding up after many decades. However, these tests will offer hard evidence, obtained through direct observation. A star traveling at a portion of the speed of light around a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy will certainly prove to be a fitting test.

And Eisenhauer and his colleagues expect to see some very interesting things. “We hope to see a “kick” in the orbit.” he said. “The general relativistic effects increase very strongly when you approach the black hole, and when the star swings by, these effects will slightly change the direction of the
orbit.”

While those of us here at Earth will not be able to “star gaze” on this occasion and see R2 whipping past Sagittarius A*, we will still be privy to all the results. And then, we just might see if Einstein really was correct when he proposed what is still the predominant theory of gravitation in physics, over a century later.

Further Reading: eso.org

How Massive Can Black Holes Get?

We talk about stellar mass and supermassive black holes. What are the limits? How massive can these things get?

Without the light pressure from nuclear fusion to hold back the mass of the star, the outer layers compress inward in an instant. The star dies, exploding violently as a supernova.

All that’s left behind is a black hole. They start around three times the mass of the Sun, and go up from there. The more a black hole feeds, the bigger it gets.

Terrifyingly, there’s no limit to much material a black hole can consume, if it’s given enough time. The most massive are ones found at the hearts of galaxies. These are the supermassive black holes, such as the 4.1 million mass nugget at the center of the Milky Way. Astronomers figured its mass by watching the movements of stars zipping around the center of the Milky Way, like comets going around the Sun.

There seems to be supermassive black holes at the heart of every galaxy we can find, and our Milky Way’s black hole is actually puny in comparison. Interstellar depicted a black hole with 100 million times the mass of the Sun. And we’re just getting started.

The giant elliptical galaxy M87 has a black hole with 6.2 billion times the mass of the Sun. How can astronomers possibly know that? They’ve spotted a jet of material 4,300 light-years long, blasting out of the center of M87 at relativistic speeds, and only black holes that massive generate jets like that.

Most recently, astronomers announced in the Journal Nature that they have found a black hole with about 12 billion times the mass of the Sun. The accretion disk here generates 429 trillion times more light than the Sun, and it shines clear across the Universe. We see the light from this region from when the Universe was only 6% into its current age.

Somehow this black hole went from zero to 12 billion times the mass of the Sun in about 875 million years. Which poses a tiny concern. Such as how in the dickens is it possible that a black hole could build up so much mass so quickly? Also, we’re seeing it 13 billion years ago. How big is it now? Currently, astronomers have no idea. I’m sure it’s fine. It’s fine right?

We’ve talked about how massive black holes can get, but what about the opposite question? How teeny tiny can a black hole be?

An illustration that shows the powerful winds driven by a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy. The schematic figure in the inset depicts the innermost regions of the galaxy where a black hole accretes, that is, consumes, at a very high rate the surrounding matter (light grey) in the form of a disc (darker grey). At the same time, part of that matter is cast away through powerful winds. (Credits: XMM-Newton and NuSTAR Missions; NASA/JPL-Caltech;Insert:ESA)
An illustration that shows the powerful winds driven by a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy. The schematic figure in the inset depicts the innermost regions of the galaxy where a black hole accretes, that is, consumes, at a very high rate the surrounding matter (light grey) in the form of a disc (darker grey). At the same time, part of that matter is cast away through powerful winds. (Credits: XMM-Newton and NuSTAR Missions; NASA/JPL-Caltech;Insert:ESA)

Astronomers figure there could be primordial black holes, black holes with the mass of a planet, or maybe an asteroid, or maybe a car… or maybe even less. There’s no method that could form them today, but it’s possible that uneven levels of density in the early Universe might have compressed matter into black holes.

Those black holes might still be out there, zipping around the Universe, occasionally running into stars, planets, and spacecraft and interstellar picnics. I’m sure it’s the stellar equivalent of smashing your shin on the edge of the coffee table.

Astronomers have never seen any evidence that they actually exist, so we’ll shrug this off and choose to pretend we shouldn’t be worrying too much. And so it turns out, black holes can get really, really, really massive. 12 billion times the mass of the Sun massive.

What part about black holes still make you confused? Suggest some topics for future episodes of the Guide to Space in the comments below.

Astronomers Catch A Quasar Shutting Off

Last week, astronomers at Yale University reported seeing something unusual: a seemingly stedfast beacon from the far reaches of the Universe went quiet. This relic light source, a quasar located in the region of our sky known as the celestial equator, unexpectedly became 6-7 times dimmer over the first decade of the 21st century. Thanks to this dramatic change in luminosity, astronomers now have an unprecedented opportunity to study both the life cycle of quasars and the galaxies that they once called home.

A quasar arises from a distant (and therefore, very old) galaxy that once contained a central, rotating supermassive black hole – what astronomers call an active galactic nucleus. This spinning beast ravenously swallowed up large amounts of ambient gas and dust, kicking up surrounding material and sending it streaming out of the galaxy at blistering speeds. Quasars shine because these ancient jets achieved tremendous energies, thereby giving rise to a torrent of light so powerful that astronomers are still able to detect it here on Earth, billions of years later.

In their hey-day, some active galactic nuclei were also energetic enough to excite electrons farther away from the central black hole. But even in the very early Universe, electrons couldn’t withstand that kind of excitement forever; the laws of physics don’t allow it. Eventually, each electron would drop back down to its rest state, releasing a photon of corresponding energy. This cycle of excitation happened over and over and over again, in regular and predictable patterns. Modern astronomers can visualize those transitions – and the energies that caused them – by examining a quasar’s optical spectrum for characteristic emission lines at certain wavelengths.

An example of an atomic spectrum, showing emission lines at particular wavelengths.
A simple example of an atomic spectrum, showing emission lines at particular wavelengths. Broad humps correspond to brighter emission lines, while lines that arise from narrow, lower-intensity emissions appear dimmer. Credit: NASA

Not all quasars are created equal, however. While the spectra of some quasars reveal many bright, broad emission lines at different energies, other quasars’ spectra consist of only the dim, narrow variety. Until now, some astronomers thought that these variations in emission lines among quasars were simply due to differences in their orientation as seen from Earth; that is, the more face-on a quasar was relative to us, the broader the emission lines astronomers would be able to see.

But all of that has now been thrown into question, thanks to our friend J015957.64+003310.5, the quasar revealed by the team of astronomers at Yale. Indeed, it is now plausible that a quasar’s pattern of emission lines simply changes over its lifetime. After gathering ten years of spectral observations from the quasar, the researchers observed its original change in brightness in 2010. In July 2014, they confirmed that it was still just as dim, disproving hypotheses that suggested the effect was simply due to intervening gas or dust. “We’ve looked at hundreds of thousands of quasars at this point, and now we’ve found one that has switched off,” explained C. Megan Urry, the study’s co-author.

How would that happen, you ask? After observing the comparable dearth of broad emission lines in its spectrum, Urry and her colleagues believe that long ago, the black hole at the heart of the quasar simply went on a diet. After all, an active galactic nucleus that consumed less material would generate less energy, giving rise to fainter particle jets and fewer excited atoms. “The power source just went dim,” said Stephanie LaMassa, the study’s principal investigator.

LaMassa continued, “Because the life cycle of a quasar is one of the big unknowns, catching one as it changes, within a human lifetime, is amazing.” And since the life cycle of quasars is dependent on the life cycle of supermassive black holes, this discovery may help astronomers to explain how those that lie at the center of most galaxies evolve over time – including Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way.

“Even though astronomers have been studying quasars for more than 50 years, it’s exciting that someone like me, who has studied black holes for almost a decade, can find something completely new,” added LaMassa.

The team’s research will be published in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal. A pre-print of the paper is available here.

Planets Could Travel Along with Rogue ‘Hypervelocity’ Stars, Spreading Life Throughout the Universe

Back in 1988, astronomer Jack Hills predicted a type of “rogue”star might exist that is not bound to any particular galaxy. These stars, he reasoned, were periodically ejected from their host galaxy by some sort of mechanism to begin traveling through interstellar space.

Since that time, astronomers have made numerous discoveries that indicate these rogue, traveling stars indeed do exist, and far from being an occasional phenomenon, they are actually quite common. What’s more, some of these stars were found to be traveling at extremely high speeds, leading to the designation of hypervelocity stars (HVS).

And now, in a series of papers that published in arXiv Astrophysics, two Harvard researchers have argued that some of these stars may be traveling close to the speed of light. Known as semi-relativistic hypervelocity stars (SHS), these fast-movers are apparently caused by galactic mergers, where the gravitational effect is so strong that it fling stars out of a galaxy entirely. These stars, the researchers say, may have the potential to spread life throughout the Universe.

This finding comes on the heels of two other major announcements. The first occurred in early November when a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal reported that as many as 200 billion rogue stars have been detected in a cluster of galaxies some 4 billion light years away. These observations were made by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Frontier Fields program, which made ultra-deep multiwavelength observations of the Abell 2744 galaxy cluster.

This was followed by a study published in Science, where an international team of astronomers claimed that as many as half the stars in the entire universe live outside of galaxies.

Using ESO's Very Large Telescope, astronomers have recorded a massive star moving at more than 2.6 million kilometres per hour. Stars are not born with such large velocities. Its position in the sky leads to the suggestion that the star was kicked out from the Large Magellanic Cloud, providing indirect evidence for a massive black hole in the Milky Way's closest neighbour. Credit: ESO
Image of a moving star captured by the ESO Very Large Telescope, believed to have been ejected from the Large Magellanic Cloud. Credit: ESO

However, the recent observations made by Abraham Loeb and James Guillochon of Harvard University are arguably the most significant yet concerning these rogue celestial bodies. According to their research papers, these stars may also play a role in spreading life beyond the boundaries of their host galaxies.

In their first paper, the researchers trace these stars to galaxy mergers, which presumably lead to the formation of massive black hole binaries in their centers. According to their calculations, these supermassive black holes (SMBH) will occasionally slingshot stars to semi-relativistic speeds.

“We predict the existence of a new population of stars coasting through the Universe at nearly the speed of light,” Loeb told Universe Today via email. “The stars are ejected by slingshots made of pairs of massive black holes which form during mergers of galaxies.”

These findings have further reinforced that massive compact bodies, widely known as a supermassive black holes (SMBH), exist at the center of galaxies. Here, the fastest known stars exist, orbiting the SMBH and accelerating up to speeds of 10,000 km per second (3 percent the speed of light).

According to Leob and Guillochon, however, those that are ejected as a result of galactic mergers are accelerated to anywhere from one-tenth to one-third the speed of light (roughly 30,000 – 100,000 km per second).

Image of a hypervelocity star found in data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Credit: Vanderbilt University
Image of a hypervelocity star found in data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Credit: Vanderbilt University

Observing these semi-relativistic stars could tell us much about the distant cosmos, according to the Harvard researchers. Compared to conventional research, which relied on subatomic particles like photons, neutrinos, and cosmic rays from distant galaxies, studying ejected stars offers numerous advantages.

“Traditionally, cosmologists used light to study the Universe but objects moving less than the speed of light offer new possibilities,” said Loeb. “For example, stars moving at different speeds allow us to probe a distant source galaxy at different look-back times (since they must have been ejected at different times in order to reach us today), in difference from photons that give us just one snapshot of the galaxy.”

In their second paper, the researchers calculate that there are roughly a trillion of these stars out there to be studied. And given that these stars were detected thanks to the Spitzer Space Telescope, it is likely that future generations will be able to study them using more advanced equipment.

All-sky infrared surveys could locate thousands of these stars speeding through the cosmos. And spectrographic analysis could tell us much about the galaxies they came from.

But how could these fast moving stars be capable of spreading life throughout the cosmos?

Could an alien spore really travel light years between different star systems? Well, as long as your theory doesn't require it to still be alive when it arrives - sure it can.
The Theory of Panspermia argues that life is distributed throughout the universe by celestial objects. Credit: NASA/Jenny Mottar

“Tightly bound planets can join the stars for the ride,” said Loeb. “The fastest stars traverse billions of light years through the universe, offering a thrilling cosmic journey for extra-terrestrial civilizations. In the past, astronomers considered the possibility of transferring life between planets within the solar system and maybe through our Milky Way galaxy. But this newly predicted population of stars can transport life between galaxies across the entire universe.”

The possibility that traveling stars and planets could have been responsible for the spread of life throughout the universe is likely to have implications as a potential addition to the Theory of Panspermia, which states that life exists throughout the universe and is spread by meteorites, comets, asteroids.

But Loeb told Universe Today that a traveling planetary system could have potential uses for our species someday.

“Our descendants might contemplate boarding a related planetary system once the Milky Way will merge with its sister galaxy, Andromeda, in a few billion years,” he said.

Further Reading: arxiv.org/1411.5022, arxiv.org/1411.5030